A Few Important British and Irish Tribes

By Edorix

This article looks at the history of the more important tribes of Late Iron Age Britain and Ireland.

About three dozen names of tribes from Iron Age Britain & Ireland have survived, passed down to us through Greek and Roman sources. In particular, Ptolemy's Geography of the second century CE lists all the civitates of the Roman province and the major known tribes beyond the frontier. From this, many think it is a simple matter to ascribe modern locations to the territories of Iron Age tribes and thus happily give themselves a tribal affiliation, but it is clear that the situation is not that simple. One cannot take a tribe in the third century CE and project it backwards through time without change to the third century BCE; the tribal political situation was not constant, with factions constantly allying into confederacies and breaking down into smaller groups, subjecting each other and being founded suddenly by aspiring petty chieftains.

For instance, when Caesar invaded Britain in 54 BCE, he names four tribes- the Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci and Cenimagni- who, by a hundred years later, had consolidated into a single tribe, the Cantiaci. Likewise, at the time of Caesar's invasion, the Trinowantes (according to him) were the most powerful tribe on the island; by 10 CE, they had been conquered by their erstwhile foe the Catuwellauni. In the second century CE, four tribes- the Wotadini, Selgowas, Nowantas and Damnonii- dwelt between Glasgow and Hadrian's Wall; by the third century, they are known to the Romans by one name, the Maeatae. There are, however, some exceptions: around 300 BCE, a continental Celtic group arrived in Yorkshire, bringing with them the Arras culture from the Seine region (although it has been suggested by prominent figures that the Arras culture was an indigenous development); it is probably safe to link this culture with the Parisii who still occupied the area at the time of the Roman conquest in the 70s CE. Nonetheless, as a general rule, it is important to bear in mind the huge degree of political "instability" in the British Isles at this time.

In some parts of the article I have leant on archaeological evidence, for instance the capital of the Woluntii and the rebellions of the Brigantes; however on the whole I have worked with historical evidence, as it provides the focus I need for this article. Estimating population would be entirely conjectural as we have no contemporary figures; for the whole island, estimates range from one to five million for the first century BCE, so I have not attempted to provide the strengths of individual tribes. Personally I lean towards the higher end of those estimates, maybe three million for the whole of Britain and one million for Ireland.

The archaeology holds some clues about the warfare and culture of different tribes: hillforts were most common in the South of England, and much less so in the East; in the lands of the Iceni and their neighbours, chariot warfare seems to have been more important. Tacitus mentions that the Caledonii had big swords and small shields, and we know the Brigantes had a lot of cavalry and fewer chariots than most tribes from a letter at Vindolanda. But these are just snippets; ultimately there's not that much to say. Also, again, the focus I need to look at individual tribes is not there. It is possible to trace broad cultural similarities across regions, but not on the tribal scale. As such I will leave such descriptions of cultural trends to another article and focus here on the history of the tribes in question.


The Catuwellauni are one of the most famous British tribes. Their name can be safely interpreted as "Battle Leaders" or "Battle Chieftains". Many suppose that Cassiwellaunos, leader of the British resistance in 54 BCE, belonged to that tribe, and it is also widely held that the Cassi, mentioned by Caesar, were his tribe, and therefore that was an older name for the Catuwellauni. There are pros and cons to this theory, but ultimately there is simply not enough evidence, so I will not go into it here. Certainly, Cassiwellaunos's territory roughly corresponded to what would later become the territory of the Catuwellauni, so for my purposes, I will consider him a Catuwellauni king.

When Caesar invaded Britain for the second time, the Britons were united and prepared. Cassiwellaunos led the resistance; defeated in open battle, he employed a variety of sound strategies to try and delay Caesar's advance, but none were quite as effective as necessary. At long last Cassiwellaunos retreated to his stronghold, just North of the later settlement of Verulamium, but, unable to repel the Roman assault, he was forced to evacuate. Deserted by his allies and possibly his own tribe, he sued for peace- but once Caesar had returned to Gaul, he was soon back to his old ways, rebuilding his power-base. Over the next hundred years or so, the Catuwellauni expanded in all directions, profiting from the Roman disaster in the Teutoburger Wald to seize Camulodunon, capital of the Roman-allied Trinowantes. We know all this and the names of several Catuwellauni kings from the coins they issued.

In the later first half of the first century CE, the Kingdom of the Catuwellauni reached its greatest extent under King Cunobelinos (better known, thanks to Shakespeare, as Cymbeline), and included most of Southeast Britain from Dorset to Kent to Lincolnshire. However, Werica, king of a tribe subjected by Cunobelinos, fled to Gaul, and found a sympathetic ear in Rome. In 43 CE, Claudius invaded, and Cunobelinos's sons, Caratacos and Togodumnos, could not long hold back the might of Rome. Togodumnos died shortly after a battle on the Thames, and Caratacos fled West. The Southeast fell into the hands of the Emperor.


A name of uncertain etymology, The Trinowantes are traditionally associated with London, although London today would more properly fall into the lands of the Cassi and Kentish tribes. They enter the history books when Mandubracios, a prince of the Trinowantes, fled to Caesar in 56 BCE seeking aid against Cassiwellaunos, who was encroaching on his territory. Caesar invaded and upon defeating Cassiwellaunos forbade him to attack the Trinowantes. As long as the Roman presence across the Channel in Gaul remained strong, the Catuwellauni obeyed; but after the Roman disaster in the Teutoburger Wald they captured the Trinowante capital of Camulodunon. In 43 CE, the Romans reinstated the Trinowantes as a civitas and made Camulodunon the provincial capital and later a colonia. However, the Trinowantes would still rise up in support of Boudica of the Iceni seventeen years later...


Famous for Boudica's famous revolt, described in detail here.

Silures et Ordovices

The Silures and Ordowices were the two larger tribes of Wales. After Caratacos fled his own lands, he continued to lead the resistance against the Romans in the mountains of the West. The Welsh tribes continued to resist even after Caratacos's betrayal and capture until governor Julius Frontinus finally conquered them in the 70s CE. The legionary camp established in Silure territory, Isca Augusta, today known as Caerleon (Welsh: Caerllion), remains a strong contender for the original Camelot of the Arthur myth.


The Brigantes, "The People of [the Goddess] Brigantia" or simply "the High People", were the most populous tribe in Britain according to Tacitus, which certainly corresponds to the massive swathe of territory they controlled in Northern England. A recurrent claim is that the Brigantes were a war-time confederation, but this does not seem to be the case; significant political unity throughout Brigantian territory is highly plausible. Their anti-Roman king Wenutios was deposed by his pro-Roman queen Cartimandua just after the Claudian invasion. When Caratacos tried to convert Cartimandua to his cause in 51 CE, she broke faith, took him prisoner and turned him over to the Romans. She held together a shaky client-kingdom for Rome for a surprisingly long time until she was finally deposed in her turn by a rebellion in the early 70s CE, causing governor Petilius Cerealis to move in and annex her tribe into the province. However, the Brigantes rebelled several times, particularly under Arwiragos in the 90s CE until 106 at least, and again around 120 CE prompting the Emperor Hadrian to come and build his wall.


A name referring to all the tribes of Scotland North of the Glasgow-Edinburgh line meaning "the Tough Guys". In 84 CE, under Calgacos, they responded to the invasion of Agricola by offering a pitched battle, but the troops failed to execute the chieftains' strategy and the result was a sound but heroic defeat. However, Caledonia was never actually conquered, despite another serious expedition led by the Emperor Septimius Severus around 210 CE, and the Caledonii grew steadily more united until they formed what is now known to history as the Pictish Kingdom, which probably called itself *Albja. The Pictish Kingdom later merged with the Scottic enclaves of the West coast in the eighth century to form Alba, the Kingdom of Scotland.


Although this is the only Irish tribe I will mention and it is almost a nationalist symbol of Northern Ireland today, this is for purely historical reasons, as the Woluntii are the only Irish tribe mentioned in the classical sources to have any special significance. The Woluntii (Old Irish: Ulaidh, English: Ulster) came to be the most important tribe in Ireland around the first century BCE as demonstrated in the Ulster Cycle, and many of the nearby tribes probably paid them tribute. They were often at odds with a confederation of tribes further down the East coast known as Connaught (whose classical name has not survived), which would eventually eclipse the power of Ulster in the second or third centuries CE and yield the first historical High King of Ireland (it is possible to find High King lists going back to 2000 BCE, which is of course legend). The remains of the Woluntian capital at Emhain Macha (Navan Fort) remain a spectacular riddle for archaeologists today.





Wikipedia: Septmius Severus, Alba, Ulster, Ulaid, Ulster Cycle


Barry Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain, 2009.

Francis Pryor, Britain BC, 2004.

All the Latin and Greek proper nouns were converted by myself into appropriate Celtic syntax, either Ancient British, Pictish or Ivernic, by myself. Thanks to Labarion for showing me what the Celtic of the time should look like.